REVIEW: Royalty Free – The Music of Kevin MacLeod (2021)
If you’ve watched YouTube videos, adverts or even the Martin Scorsese film Hugo, then chances are you’ve heard the music of composer Kevin MacLeod, usually without even realising it. His unique business model of giving away free music in exchange for exposure is an odd one that has worked for him and, as a YouTuber myself, I can admit that I’ve used his music too. But not much is known about him and his actual business strategy. Which is where the documentary Royalty Free: The Music of Kevin Macleod comes in. Written, produced and narrated by Ryan Camarda, Royalty Free chronicles the life and success of composer Kevin MacLeod, the man behind the free music site Incompetech. The documentary is an extremely enjoyable, and fascinating, look at the world-famous modern composer, if a little tangled in its presentation.
The first aspect to note is how creative the use of soundtrack in the film is. Every piece of music used throughout the 90-minute runtime is from Kevin MacLeod. It not only makes audiences realise how huge his award-winning discography is (he even has the highest number of composer credits on IMDb!), but it also acts as a true connection between the film and the subject matter. By using his music as the soundtrack for the documentary, it not only demonstrates just how vast his catalogue is, but how varied it is. Each piece of music sounds different to the previous one, and they all cross over into different genres and moods. For example, ‘Scheming Weasel’ is goofy and fast-paced, ‘Cipher’ is relaxing and calming while ‘Bent and Broken’ is eerie and sounds like it’s been taken out of a horror film. The fact that the documentary chooses to only use Macleod’s music as its soundtrack really demonstrates that he has created tracks for every occasion and mood. Occasionally, the film will also feature vox pops, asking passers-by whether they recognise a certain track. The fact that all of the participants recognised every track, regardless of whether they knew the artist, highlights that, within a few seconds of listening, each track is recognisable and there’s a familiarity to them, making the music something that people can latch onto.
In order to document him, the film actually interviews Kevin MacLeod. While this may seem like an obvious technique for this type of film, it still came as a surprise, considering that MacLeod is never seen in the public eye. And he is exactly how I imagined him to be: humble and modest about his own success, but he’s also the type of person that will do what he thinks is right. An example of this is when he goes to a show and doesn’t think the music fits with the visuals, so he downloads the online edition and rescores it. And, when he’s being interviewed, his decisions for his work reflect his personality. An example of this is when Martin Scorsese wanted to use his music for the 2011 film Hugo and Kevin only suggested they pay him $30. The agent was shocked and said they would offer him more, to which he responded, ‘you can do that too.’ Like previously mentioned, MacLeod seems to be a very modest person who just wants people to experience his music, and that’s something that is to be respected.
But, if people do want to pay for his music, then he has a unique business model in the form of commissions and donations, as well as earning money from ad revenue. While this model may seem common in industries like the art industry, it’s unique for the music industry, especially in terms of scores and soundtracks. The documentary uses this model as a stepping-stone to look to the future. Other YouTube channels are already starting to adopt the same idea, so will this be a norm? But, furthermore, will traditional orchestras be replaced by electronic music, which is cheaper and quicker to produce? These questions bring in some issues, mainly around the legitimacy of the ‘selling’ of the music, which the documentary highlights via interviews, animations and even puppetry. These latter aspects make the documentary stand out and make it charming, especially the puppetry. Just like MacLeod’s strategy, this is unique and is a delight to watch. And the topics brought up surrounding the future of traditional orchestras, as well as the future of copyright-free music, are interesting and relevant ones to discuss. Especially considering that copyright-free music is even more accessible now than it was when Kevin’s MacLeod’s website started in 1996.
However, Royalty Free isn’t perfect in its presentation. While none of the content should be removed, the film could’ve done with a re-edit, because it lacks a concise structure. Some topics that are brought up, like MacLeod’s childhood, should’ve appeared at the start instead of thirty minutes in. As well as this, the puppetry segments explaining creative commons and the meaning of royalty free should’ve been together, instead of being split up.
But the positives outweigh the negatives, because Royalty Free: The Music of Kevin MacLeod is a very enjoyable documentary. It offers a first look into the work of the ‘music man of YouTube’ and discusses his business strategy in terms of what it means for the future of copyright-free music and the music industry in general, a topic that is very much needed at a time when the old ways in which musicians made money barely exist anymore. As a huge fan of MacLeod’s music, I really appreciate the existence of this film.